Transcript: Under Secretary of State Judith McHale Addresses Public Diplomacy and Social Media in Latin America

Publish Date: 
Tuesday, March 29, 2011

This address was delivered on Tuesday, March 29, 2011 by Under Secretary of State for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs Judith A. McHale. It was delivered at an event co-hosted by NDN & the New Policy Institute and the Latin America Studies Program of Johns Hopkins University's School for Advanced International Studies (SAIS). A video of the speech is available here

Under Secretary of State McHale: Thank you, Nelson, and thank you for inviting me to be here with you today. I'd also like to give a special welcome to everyone joining us over the Internet and at Binational Centers throughout Latin America and the Caribbean.

We couldn't have picked a more salient topic or a more critical time to talk about new media and their impact on our relationships around the world. Throughout the Middle East, people are shaking off decades of restrictive government controls. New media and the Internet have provided a long looked-for public space for opposition groups to organize their supporters into a movement. And that movement is transforming our world.

Ideas are infectious. They always have been. Today, immediate and widespread access to information allows ideas to circulate virally. It empowers people to participate in the political lives of their countries. It equalizes voices.

The Internet has made it possible to reach more people in more places. But it has also shifted power and influence to such an extent that it is necessary to engage with more people. This means we can no longer hope to control how and when and through what medium people form their impressions of us.

More so now than ever, public diplomacy is a vital component of the foreign policy of the United States. Engaging and telling our story to people around the world both advances our national interests and enhances our national security. And if we are not the ones telling our story, you can be sure someone else will be. We cannot afford to play defense in an ever-changing landscape.

To put it bluntly: The world has changed, and if we do not change the way we interact with people, we risk being marginalized or made obsolete.

So we are doing everything we can to connect with people - all 6.8 billion of them - to better ensure the stability and security of our country, our region, and our world. We take this mission very seriously.

At the State Department, we recognize that stand-alone government-to-government diplomacy is no longer enough. From Secretary Clinton down, we are embracing new media and new technologies as vital tools for what we call "21st Century Statecraft."

We are not so naïve as to believe that we can build meaningful relationships with people using nothing but social networking sites. There is no virtual equivalent for face-to-face interactions with Americans. But new media can be the first connection that sparks a curiosity to learn more about one another. Or it can be the second contact that helps cement and build a relationship over time and distance. Each of these interactions leaves a different impression and shows a person he or she is important to you.

So today I'd like to share with you some of the ways we are using new media and connective technologies to modernize our public diplomacy.

Technology has not changed the aim of our public diplomacy efforts. We want to forge personal connections and strengthen the relationship between Americans and people around the world. That was true 50 years ago, and it will still be true 50 years from now.

But technology has moved the work of public diplomacy into new arenas. Today we are connecting directly to new audiences. We are shifting the spirit of public diplomacy from one-way messaging to two-way engagement.

As we do this, Latin America and the Caribbean provide us with a natural testing ground for a more broad-based diplomacy. The population is young, connected, and hungry for education and information. Our people are united by a shared history, shared values and a shared environment. And throughout the region, people are savvy about using technology to find opportunities to connect.

It takes effort to cultivate these relationships and use new media responsibly and effectively. Like all public diplomacy, new media outreach requires research and an element of risk. It takes planning to match the right tool with the right opportunity. We have to know our audience to understand what messages will resonate with them and can be amplified using social media.

When we see what gets a response, we improve our ability to try new things in the future. If we do this right, we also learn more about our audience. We can ask about their needs and opinions, and they can tell us.

New media and connective technologies enhance our ability to listen. That is the number one improvement to our 21stcentury public diplomacy toolkit. Social media provides new ways for us to keep our ear to the ground. And when we better understand cultural attitudes and developing trends, social media can help us craft better policies.

Anyone with a mobile phone or an internet connection has the ability to communicate with us. We see every message, and we engage as equals. This feedback is an incredibly valuable resource - whether the feedback is positive or negative - because it allows us to better understand how our actions and decisions are being interpreted by people and governments around the world.

It can also serve as an early warning system to head-off public diplomacy concerns before they become full-blown crises. We can share immediate information and provide rapid response answers to questions as they arise.

More important, a two-way flow of information encourages the kinds of partnerships that are critical to our relationships throughout Latin America and the Caribbean. As President Obama said just last week in Santiago "in the Americas today, there are no senior partners and there are no junior partners, there are only equal partners." And these partnerships require mutual responsibility.

New media support our commitment to mutual responsibility by increasing accessibility and transparency. They allow us to pursue our shared goals in dialogue and partnership. And they help us build good will and connections directly between our people.

We all remember how the world mobilized in response to the devastating earthquake in Haiti last January. Not just governments, but citizens who saw the immediacy of the tragedy on their personal cell phones and laptops.

Working with our private-sector partners and the Red Cross, we set up a mobile donation system that provided an outlet for Americans' generosity and compassion. Together, we raised a groundbreaking $40 million in 5- and 10-dollar increments.

But we also partnered with local telecom providers to develop a free SMS short code. Using the code, Haitian citizens could tell relief workers where they were and what they needed. It allowed us to bring a massive response effort to a very personal scale.

One woman was able to send a message using the short code when she went into labor. With one text, she alerted first responders to her location and situation, and they arrived in time to help deliver her baby.

In another instance, a camp of displaced survivors had not received any supplies for days. 2,500 people with no food, no water. After receiving text messages from individuals living at the camp, we were able to direct aid distribution before the situation worsened.

None of this would have been possible without partnership and two-way communication at every level.

Our Assistant Secretary for Western Hemisphere Affairs, Arturo Valenzuela, is very open to new media as a way to foster conversation with citizens across the Americas. Today, anyone interested in learning what the Assistant Secretary is doing can follow his tweets. They can "friend" him on Facebook. Or they can ask him a direct question in a digital town hall like the one he hosted last November.

Of course, we are not interested in developing social media platforms for the sake of having them. We are interested in applying social media to promote our strategic objectives in the Americas.

Senior officials in Washington use new media to involve people throughout the region in a give-and-take on policy topics. And our embassies use these openings to spur follow up discussions on regional priorities. New technologies open up new and creative ways to build toward our goals.

President Obama has outlined four pillars for our regional partnership with the Western Hemisphere: protecting citizen security; expanding economic opportunity and social inclusion; securing our clean energy future; and supporting democratic, transparent, and accountable institutions of governance.

Public diplomacy supports and strengthens each of these pillars. For example, we are coordinating a series of webinars over the course of this year to celebrate the history and culture of Afro-Latinos. And Embassy Bogotá organized a webchat between high school students in Colombia and Indiana to talk about combating racism and discrimination. Each of these programs use technology and new media to promote the Obama administration's goal of advancing racial equality and social inclusion throughout the region.

We are increasingly using mobile technology to improve our engagement. On average, 89 percent of people in Latin American and Caribbean have a mobile phone. Only 6.4 percent have a broadband Internet connection. SMS programs and mobile apps allow us to communicate with broad segments of the population - many of whom we have few other ways of reaching. And that makes mobile a powerful resource to promote our regional agenda.

We are also exploring opportunities to share information about English language learning or exchange programs via mobile phones. In Colombia, we are working with the Colombian government, NGOs, and Mobile Medic to connect landmine victims with community health services. In Mexico, we are partnering with the Public Safety Secretariat and NGOs to develop an anonymous tip line to allow citizens to safely share information regarding criminal activity.

Obviously, social media and mobile technology are not the silver bullet for any of our policy goals, but they can be effective ways to organize people and share critical information. So we are working with innovative thinkers and technology developers across the region to put new tools in the hands of community groups and citizen activists.

Two of our signature programs to facilitate this are tech dels - or technology delegations - and a TechCamp for civil society organizations.

Tech dels bring innovators to a country to learn about its needs and environment. Then the innovators help facilitate citizen-level solutions to state-level challenges. Many of the examples I have already shared with you today - the mobile-based solutions in Haiti, and the anonymous tip-line to fight narco-trafficking in Mexico - were launched because of a tech del.

Last November, we convened the first ever TechCamp in Santiago to bring NGOs who know the issues and the needs of their communities together with technology experts. As part of Secretary Clinton's Civil Society 2.0 initiative, TechCamp allowed NGOs to share ideas with one another and explore ways technology can empower their grassroots efforts. And TechCamp participants have since put these ideas to work. They are empowering youth in the favelas of Rio de Janeiro and helping mend the social fabric in Ciudad Juarez.

In our view, new media and new technology are not valuable in and of themselves. They are only valuable when we can use them to improve people's lives and make connections.

At its best, the power of new media is a very personal one, because social media are about forging a one-to-one connection. We must never forget the individuals who make up a network. Behind every online handle and hashtag, there is a person trying to make a connection. They deserve to be treated as such.

Humans long to connect with and learn about other humans. But no one wants to connect with a sterile diplomatic presence that does nothing more than serve up the same stale information in bite-sized bits. Legions of online followers or "likes" mean very little if the interaction never moves beyond the virtual realm. The challenge is turning our online presence into live, one-to-one encounters.

A successful social media presence is interactive. It is transparent. And it is personal. Only then can we provoke a response and start a conversation between real people.

From my work at MTV and Discovery Communications, I have long known about the innovative ways Latin Americans use media. So when I visited again last summer, I was impressed by the creative ways our Embassies are using social media to connect.

In Uruguay, the Embassy has turned online visitors into real friends by hosting simple contests with simple prizes - a game of Foosball with the Ambassador, for example. Just think about the public diplomacy impact of saying to your friends, "I beat the American Ambassador at Foosball yesterday." The staffers who run Embassy Montevideo's Facebook put their names and pictures right on the home page so Uruguayan fans know they are dealing with real people.

Embassy La Paz has another great success story of turning online engagement into face-to-face connections. In a country of fewer than 10 million, the embassy has almost 32,000 Facebook fans thanks to regular content updates and frequent contests. As in Uruguay, the prizes often involve little more than coffee with an American staffer or dinner at the principal officer's house. These simple but meaningful encounters are as much a prize for our public diplomacy officers as the Bolivian winners. Yet we always hear how surprised the Bolivians are that Embassy officials would make time for them. They say they did not expect such openness from the United States.

And at Embassy Santo Domingo in the Dominican Republic, the Public Affairs section decided to open up their Facebook page to all embassy officers that engage in public outreach. Staff use the page to talk with individual users about topics ranging from embassy programs and contests to sometimes controversial topics. Thanks to this high level of personal attention, the Embassy page has exploded from having 1,000 fans a year ago, to more than 37,000 today.

In each of these examples, the power is not the platform, it's the people. And social media builds on the decades of expertise we've developed promoting people to people outreach.

In preparation for President Obama's visit to Latin America earlier this month, we set up a mobile website through Facebook and invited Brazilians to send welcome messages to the President. Over the course of two weeks, we received more than 31,000 text messages and 500 videos from all over Brazil.

Embassy Brasilia grew its Facebook fan base by more than 750 percent and doubled its Twitter followers. These are impressive metrics. But the real testament to the campaign's success is in the messages from Brazilians themselves who were eager to connect with President Obama.

A man named Fred wrote in from Brasilia: "It's an honor to welcome the first American president that looks Brazilian!! Welcome home, Mr. President."

Another came from a teacher in Mossoró named Késia Nunes who had told her class about President Obama. She said: "They told me how they were amazed by the man who shows that no matter where we come from, our race, religion, we all can reach our dreams."

At the State Department, we are not using social media and new technology because they are the current fad. I've worked in popular media long enough to know how long fads usually last.

We are using new media because they enable us to do something different. To hear directly from Fred and Késia and all her students about what matters most to them. And to thank them for their input. When we successfully do that, we affirm again and again how much more there is that unites us than divides us.

So I hope that you all will join us in figuring out how best to use these new media going forward. We are open to any ideas and suggestions. We want to tap the connections of people here in this room and of those participating online, so we can keep up with all the opportunities new media and connective technology bring.

Because we're not looking for fans or followers. We're looking for partners and people to help us lead. Thank you.